Private Lives review – Coward’s comedy becomes a stark theatre of cruelty

Love is a tempestuous, abusive affair in Michael Longhurst’s sleek staging of Noël Coward’s intimate tragicomedy. In a production that grows in confidence as the night goes on, the highs and lows of an addictive, damaging relationship are shown through impromptu charleston dances and furiously smashed glasses. Here, love is savage and inescapable.

Divorced couple Elyot (a careless, arrogant Stephen Mangan) and Amanda (a glorious, prowling Rachael Stirling) cannot bear to be around or apart from one another. They make each other crack up with laughter and yet as soon as they settle for a moment, Coward’s snappy, scathing dialogue releases gross cruelties.

Next to their new partners (Laura Carmichael and Sargon Yelda, both suitably tepid), Mangan and Stirling loom large on the stage with roaming hatred and mockery, delighting in the chaos they cause. But it’s only later that they can really let loose; restricted to their unexciting hotel balconies, the first act feels performed almost by rote.

As it warms up, though, this production makes their fights ferociously physical. The challenge with staging Private Lives is to balance the light comedy with the blatant abuse that claws through the script: they shout, they push, they throw sharp slaps. Longhurst leans into the violence, adding an element of sexual power-play into their relationship. But liking it rough is no justification for what they do out of the bedroom. There are moments of genuine shock as Mangan throws Stirling across the stage by her hair, and those in the front rows have to dodge flying shards of vinyl.

By foregrounding the domestic violence, the show sometimes finds it hard to navigate the humour. Mangan’s Elyot is a vile man, turning on the charm very selectively, and the easy way Amanda comes back to him – willingly, excitedly – feels gut-wrenchingly wrong. This is an admirable interpretation of a complex relationship, but one that still feels a little uneasy with itself.